Steve Nagy (stevenagy) wrote,
Steve Nagy

Book Report 1-5

I hadn't written a report on the books I've read so far this year for my unofficial 52 book challenge, but after knocking out #4 and #5 this past week or so I wanted to make a few comments. Especially since both touch on the idea of genre fiction as entertainment while doing a bit more.

Here's the (short) list and edutainment stuff:

01 - Winter's Heart by Robert Jordan
02 - The Crimson Serpent by Kenneth Robeson
03 - Poison Island by Kenneth Robeson
04 - The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril by Paul Malmont
05 -Dead Beat by Jim Butcher

As you can see, the first is a weighty volume, part X of Y in Jordan's Wheel of Time, the next two are pulp reprints, fourth is properly an homage to the Pulp Era, and the last is the seventh book in The Dresden Files series.

I feel like singing "One Of These Things Is Not Like The Other" from Sesame Street, but I think the mileage varies based on readers. Some might consider the Jordan as the odd man, while others would tap Malmont's "literary" novel as the square placed among the circles. Which is the point, in my opinion.

I lean toward the Jordan book as the square for a couple reasons: 1) it's not a stand-alone novel; and 2) it's quite long in comparison to the other books. But even those reasons are negligible when I consider the books as "entertainment" rather than as separate works. Because reading was always fun for me. That's why I found it so hard to read text books in school. I think the only ones I ever made it through with any enthusiasm were The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George Speare, which I read back in Catholic elementary school, and a non-fiction work about Nazi Germany when I was in college.

Entertaining readers is one of the top 10 things you should do when writing a book. Not sure where I rank it, but I consider it important.* If you don't entertain a reader, you don't keep the reader. And all five I've read so far in 2007, while still trying to catch up on the books I own and need to read yet, have that in common:

1 - Winter's Heart is thick, another door stopper, but when I started reading the series I liked the density and various story levels it provided. Looking back on the series as a whole I can see the structure a little better now, here toward the end. I picked it up when the fourth book, and one of the best in the series--The Shadow Rising--was out in hardcover. I tore through the first three paperback reprints to reach that one, and each built on the previous one to create a satisfying experience.

Sitting down and finally reading this ninth volume, X number of years after it came out, I'm able to consider the series as one story told in three parts, with each part comprised of four books. Which might explain why so many people had problems with 5 through 8--they were the middle act. I'm looking forward to finishing the series, and I'll probably sit down some day and read them through all at once so the cast of characters doesn't overwhelm, but I have to admit I found the book more satisfying than not. There were some things I didn't like:

a) The cover depicts a scene from early in the book, which didn't really touch on its main events, indicating the illustrator might have skimmed the first few chapters to find a likely scene and gone with that rather than offering a cover that truly illustrated the book. It's not Jordan's fault, though the length of the entire series lends itself to these situations.
b) The series is so damn long, with so many secondary and tertiary characters, you almost need to read through the previous volumes or reference online wikis with alarming frequency to keep track of people. Which is why I'll read the entire thing again some day.

2, 3 and 4 - The Crimson Serpent, Poison Island and The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril bear discussion all together because they're all products of the Pulp Era. I read Doc Savages as a kid, and I still read them as an adult because they're a quick shot of genre. Good and evil are drawn in blacks and whites (with a good dash of red for the gore, as villains get their comeuppance), and I'm able to sit back and just enjoy. I'm not necessarily challenged, which is what you get with longer, serious works such as the Malmont offering, and its examination of the era's roots and players, but each delivers pulp thrills in their own measure. And pulp, like the best works in modern genre fiction, let you forget your troubles while still offering lessons in what is right and what is wrong.

As writers, we place characters in peril so we can look into the abyss. As readers, we want characters to go through hell so we change as they change. And the novelist better make it a fun ride. It's cliche, but a spoonful of sugar does make medicine go down. That the pulps are slight in comparison with Malmont's work, or with Jordan's or Butcher's, doesn't devalue their worth. They follow their design.

Which brings me to #5 -Dead Beat. I finished the book this morning and came away satisfied. It's the first Dresden book originally released in hardcover, and Butcher delivered, ramping up the action and emotional stakes. The series started out as little more than light reading--much as the Doc Savages are light reading--but each new volume shows changes to the main character, and consequently requires a greater investment by a reader. I recall reading a comment by Butcher in his email list that he had definite thoughts about the character arc of Harry Dresden. The books weren't going from point A to point A. There was a Z in sight. And he's held true to that vision.

That's one of the reasons I make a distinction between the Dresden books and the Anita Blakes. Hal Duncan touched on this a bit with his take on Laurell K. Hamilton berating readers who complained about the Blake series and I have to say I agree with his viewpoint. Butcher is not Hamilton. He's better. She lost me somewhere between The Lunatic Cafe and Bloody Bones because my "investment" as a reader wasn't returned. I couldn't follow Anita and sympathize with her experiences.

Hamilton wasn't growing as a writer in my opinion, cheating on the story to fit a cookie cutter model for the type of books she wrote. I wanted more bang for my buck (and not in the way she provided it). With the minor exception of the third Dresden--Grave Peril--which left me feeling cheated at the way it started in media res and introduced a new, fully developed character to incorporate into the milieu without much warning, Butcher has grown, and let his readers grow with him. While I accurately anticipated one twist near the end of Dead Beat,** I still found its depiction completely worth the wait.

There's probably a lot more I could write about entertainment as a goal, but lunch is over and it's ear-grindstone time again.***

* - I'm not even sure what all goes into my Top 10, though I can add Have Fun as one of them.
** - Sue.
*** - I work with telephone support. If I was a pig hunting for truffles, maybe I'd use nose.
Tags: 52 book challenge, process, writing
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